Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Enforcement Act (UCCJEA)
Whether a trial court has jurisdiction under the UCCJEA is a matter of subject-matter jurisdiction. In re Salminen, 492 S.W.3d 31, 38 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 2016, orig. proceeding) (“Subject matter jurisdiction in child custody matters is determined by reference to the UCCJEA, set out in Family Code Chapter 152.”); Waltenburg v. Waltenburg, 270 S.W.3d 308, 313 (Tex. App.—Dallas 2008, no pet.) (stating that UCCJEA is “exclusive jurisdictional basis for making a child custody determination by a court of this state”). The party seeking to invoke the trial court's jurisdiction has the burden to allege facts that affirmatively demonstrate the court's authority to hear the case. Seligman-Hargis v. Hargis, 186 S.W.3d 582, 585 (Tex. App.—Dallas 2006, no pet.).
In 1999, Texas adopted the UCCJEA, which “was designed, in large part, to clarify and to unify the standards for courts’ continuing and modification jurisdiction in interstate child-custody matters.” In re Forlenza, 140 S.W.3d 373, 374 (Tex. 2004) (orig. proceeding). The UCCJEA “specifically grants exclusive continuing jurisdiction over child-custody disputes to the state that made the initial custody determination and provides specific rules on how long this jurisdiction continues.” Id. at 375.
The UCCJEA also contains rules preventing another state from modifying a child-custody determination while the state that made the original determination retains exclusive continuing jurisdiction. Id. at 375; Hart v. Kozik, 242 S.W.3d 102, 106–07 (Tex. App.—Eastland 2007, no pet.) (stating that UCCJEA's “overarching purposes are to prevent conflicting jurisdiction, relitigation of child custody issues, and deter child abduction,” and, to that end, statute limits authority to make custody determinations to one court, even though multiple states might have legitimate interest in parent-child relationship at issue). For purposes of the UCCJEA, a foreign country is treated as if it were a state of the United States. Tex. Fam. Code § 152.105(a); Cortez v. Cortez, 639 S.W.3d 298, 306 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 2021, no pet.) (on reh’g).
Section 152.201(a) is the “exclusive jurisdictional basis for making a child custody determination by a court of this state”; it provides that jurisdiction to make an initial child custody determination is proper in a Texas court if one of four criteria are met. In re C.H., 595 S.W.3d 272, 275 (Tex. App.—Amarillo 2019, no pet.) (citing Waltenburg v. Waltenburg, 270 S.W.3d 308, 313 (Tex. App.—Dallas 2008, no pet.)). Courts will examine each circumstance in the order identified in section 152.201(a) to determine if:
(1) this state is the home state of the child on the date of the commencement of the proceeding, or was the home state of the child within six months before the commencement of the proceeding and the child is absent from this state but a parent or person acting as a parent continues to live in this state;
(2) a court of another state does not have jurisdiction under Subdivision (1), or a court of the home state of the child has declined to exercise jurisdiction on the ground that this state is the more appropriate forum under Section 152.207 or 152.208, and:
(A) the child and the child's parents, or the child and at least one parent or a person acting as a parent, have a significant connection with this state other than mere physical presence; and
(B) substantial evidence is available in this state concerning the child's care, protection, training, and personal relationships;
(3) all courts having jurisdiction under Subdivision (1) or (2) have declined to exercise jurisdiction on the ground that a court of this state is the more appropriate forum to determine the custody of the child under Section 152.207 or 152.208; or
(4) no court of any other state would have jurisdiction under the criteria specified in Subdivision (1), (2), or (3).
Tex. Fam. Code § 152.201(a); In re Tirey, No. 07-22-00002-CV, 2022 WL 801947, at *2 (Tex. App.—Amarillo 2022, orig. proceeding) (mem. op.). When making this determination, courts examine the circumstances existing at the time the lawsuit is commenced (i.e., when the first pleading is filed). In re Marriage of Marsalis, 338 S.W.3d 131, 135 (Tex. App.—Texarkana 2011, no pet.); Tex. Fam. Code § 152.102(5).
Once a state has continuing exclusive jurisdiction, that state retains jurisdiction until:
(1) a court of this state determines that neither the child, nor the child and one parent, nor the child and a person acting as a parent, have a significant connection with this state and that substantial evidence is no longer available in this state concerning the child's care, protection, training, and personal relationships; or
(2) a court of this state or a court of another state determines that the child, the child's parents, and any person acting as a parent do not presently reside in this state.
Tex. Fam. Code § 152.202. “[E]xclusive jurisdiction continues in the decree-granting state as long as a significant connection exists or substantial evidence is present.” In re Forlenza, 140 S.W.3d at 379 (noting that plain language of section 152.202(a)(1) provides that jurisdiction continues until trial court determines no significant connection with Texas exists and substantial evidence concerning care, protection, training, and personal relationships is no longer available in Texas); In re Meekins, 550 S.W.3d 729, 738–39 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 2018, orig. proceeding). “The UCCJEA gives [the court that made an initial child custody determination] the sole power to decide whether it will continue to exercise that jurisdiction.” In re J.P., 598 S.W.3d 789, 796 (Tex. App.—Fort Worth 2020, pet. denied).
Texas courts consider a parent’s blocking of visitation in considering whether children continue to have a “significant connection” with the State of Texas. Cortez, 639 S.W.3d at 311.
If a state has jurisdiction under Texas Family Code Section 152.201 but is nevertheless an inconvenient forum, a party can ask that state to decline jurisdiction in favor of a different state. Tex. Fam. Code 152.207; In re Minschike, No. 13-20-00508-CV, 2021 WL 1844240 (Tex. App.—Corpus Christi 2020, orig. proceeding) (mem. op.). In conducting this analysis, the court must consider whether it is appropriate for the court of another state to exercise jurisdiction. Tex. Fam. Code § 152.207(b); In re C.H., 595 S.W.3d at 275–76; Lesem, 445 S.W.3d at 372. The family code expressly provides that, in making this determination, the court “shall consider all relevant factors, including” the following:
(1) whether domestic violence has occurred and is likely to continue in the future and which state could best protect the parties and the child;
(2) the length of time the child has resided outside this state;
(3) the distance between the court in this state and the court in the state that would assume jurisdiction;
(4) the relative financial circumstances of the parties;
(5) any agreement of the parties as to which state should assume jurisdiction;
(6) the nature and location of the evidence required to resolve the pending litigation, including testimony of the child;
(7) the ability of the court of each state to decide the issue expeditiously and the procedures necessary to present the evidence; and
(8) the familiarity of the court of each state with the facts and issues in the pending litigation.
Tex. Fam. Code § 152.207(b). The eight factors identified in Section 152.207(b) are not exclusive. In re Meekins, 550 S.W.3d at 742.